From one extreme to another – back from California I went straight off to Wales to film. We were at a coal mine that had been closed but has now reopened as a co-operative and is doing extremely well. With the ability of power stations to clean coal much more successfully now, coal is having a little comeback.
We donned layer after layer of safety equipment, got our helmets, lights, and emergency masks, and set off. I was half expecting to see a canary in a cage as a check for gas leaks, but fortunately they now have meters – what a great day for the canary world that was.
We walked into the drift shaft, deep into the heart of the mountain. It was an extraordinary experience, full of curious noises and unsettling things landing on your helmet. When we finally reached the seam, the heat was unbelievable and men, stripped down to just shorts, hacked away at the black face.
I stood around rather uselessly, thinking of personally monogrammed pillowcases in LA and of just how cushy my life is in comparison. The miners didn't seem to hold it against me, however. They were an irresistibly friendly bunch and just thrilled to be back doing what was in their blood. When the mine closed, some of them had gone to work in factories, a couple of others had trained as driving instructors – but the moment it reopened they were straight back. "A huge part of myself was missing," one said.
We were down there for an hour or so, and none of us broached the subject, but we were all slightly nervous about the return to the surface. It had been a hard downhill walk and the idea of doing it uphill in the heat was unbearable. We were lucky – miners are a hardy bunch, but they aren't suckers for unnecessary punishment.
We walked into a separate shaft where a huge conveyor belt carried the coal up to the surface. We were all told to lie facing upwards and as flat as we could. When we were ready, the belt was turned on and we were projected upwards with some speed. Disneyland has no ride like this. It seemed to go on for ever and started to feel a little like something out of 'Scooby-Doo', complete with sound effects. I can now look a working man in the face and say: "God I've got it easy."
That evening, back in Swansea, we were told to go to a restaurant that was the "finest in town". It was like one of those bistros from the early Seventies where you got a small glass of orange juice as a starter. Barely edible calamari was followed by God-awful whitebait. It took me right back to hideous meals at prep school, but also made me appreciate just how far we've come in the UK over the past 25 years. The final straw was that you had to go up to a counter to "select" your food and order it. There were several tall, rather pretty Polish waitresses hanging about, but their job seemed to be only to point you in the direction of the counter every time you wanted something. By the time I'd visited the forlorn "salad bar" and been handed my awful steak, I was finished. I was convinced that I had "black lung" from my mining exploits and felt totally worn out. We all considered reviving another great Seventies tradition – the runner – but were too chicken Kiev to do it.
We duly handed over huge wads of notes for our awful dinner. The Polish waitresses were happy to accept the money. I imagined their phone calls home to Warsaw.
"Yezz Momma, I hav great job in Svanzea. I am vaitrezz but viv no vaitrezzing nezzezzary. Iz crazy, but what can I do?"
I'm off home to sleep for a thousand years.Reuse content